“A man without history is a tree without roots” -- so begins Vietnamerica, a mesmerizing and moving graphic memoir by Gia-Bao Tran. GB, as the author calls himself, has been growing up in South Carolina ignorant of (and indifferent to) the events that uprooted his parents from Saigon and transplanted them to the United States. Only at the death of his grandparents, thirty years after his parents flee Vietnam, does GB visit Vietnam for the first time. There he will discover the remnants of family and friends who stayed behind, and will piece together their heartbreaking histories, entwined with the history of the land, to finally understand the scars left on his family.
The book is beautifully, lovingly, rendered. GB is a master illustrator and cartoonist, effortlessly varying techniques -- cartoons, line drawings, block prints, water colors -- to capture his story, from the serenity of Vungtau where his parents lived a few idyllic years before they fled Vietnam, to the starkness of the terror and destruction inflicted by Vietnam’s many wars, to the chaos of the burgeoning modern Vietnam he finds when he lands there.
Particularly impressive are various full page illustrations that stop the narrative, as though stopping time itself so that the moment can be experienced in all its complexity, sometimes zooming out to include the entire scene, sometimes zooming in to present details. In one stunning depiction of the migration of his mother’s family from the north to the south, GB does both: The top panel, spread across two facing pages, is the actual migration: people fleeing, carrying their belongings and children, while being targeted by soldiers with bayonets, with airplanes flying overhead dropping parachutes from the sky. The wide bottom panel is the destination: a placid sea, coconut trees, and a family calmly enjoying the vista from a hillside, showing not a hint of any of the preceding turmoil. And in between the two panels are close-ups of people’s feet during the migration, some with slippers, some barefoot, walking through rain, over rocks, through puddles. The page is prefaced by his mother’s words: “I was too young to remember, but that couldn’t have been an easy journey.” The pictures are, of course, all drawn by GB, and even though these scenes in the past are doubly imagined, the pictures appear to have all the power and authority and authenticity of a lived collective memory.
The narrative alternates between the present (the path to GB’s discovery of his history) and the past (narrated by his mother, father, and uncle, amongst others), spiraling towards that final moment of uprooting, in an airport in Saigon waiting to board a plane to America, where GB will be born. Included are details: GB’s paternal grandmother’s opportunistic affair with a French Colonel when his grandfather deserts her to join the Vietminh, so she can bring her family up safely; his maternal grandmother’s career as a baker; the efforts of an American who befriends his father before the fall of Saigon and is instrumental in his escape to America; his father’s friend’s inability to escape and subsequent deportation to a labor camp for six years when the Vietminh take over; the difficulty of contacting family and friends who did not manage to escape. The various narrative threads, and the tangled telling of them, threaten to overwhelm the memoir at times -- that they don’t do so, is largely because it doesn’t seem to matter which war is currently besetting the populace, who the enemy is, who is seeking to incarcerate, who is forced to flee -- the resulting upheaval destroys lives regardless.
A central thread in the memoir is GB’s strained relationship with his sometimes harsh and remote father, and the memoir seeks to understand his father’s character as it simultaneously tries to uncover the history leading to his father fleeing Vietnam. GB discovers various clues: his father’s strict and unsympathetic upbringing by his mother; his grandmother’s disapproval of his father’s career as an artist in Vietnam, much in the same way his father is now reluctant to endorse GB’s career as an illustrator and writer; his father’s strained relationship with his own father who returns, after his son has fled to America, as part of the victorious Vietminh; his father’s torture at the hands of the French while being interrogated regarding the whereabouts of his own absconding father.
Ultimately, the book is as much about understanding the scars carried by families as it is about discovering the history that inflicted them. The history of a land is tied to the history of its people, and thus to the history of its families -- this beautiful and moving book is thus also a tribute to the strength of families, and the bonds that strive to survive the uprooting.
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GB Tran will be appearing at the following events:
Nov. 17: public talk and class visit at the University of Illinois in Chicago
Nov. 18-19: panels at the National Council of Teachers of English in Chicago
Nov. 30: public talk and Vietnamerica exhibition opening at Mercer Gallery in Rochester
Nawaaz Ahmed is a transplant from Tamil Nadu, India. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Cornell University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he won Hopwood awards for his short stories, non-fiction, and his novel-in-progress.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!